No matter where it originated, falafel is still Israel's national food
Middle Eastern food fights aside, Israelis have found their own way to eat the fried chickpea balls. Just in time for Israel's Independence Day, Vered Guttman gives us the scoop on how to make and eat these delicious treats.
What is the most Israeli food? You’re probably thinking of falafel. And you're probably right, assuming that the question has one answer.
But as with anything else in the Middle East, politics can't be left out of the equation. Israelis who argue falafel is their own face strong objections from Egyptians, Palestinians and Lebanese, who themselves claim to be the sole owners of these fried chickpea balls.
The falafel debate has actually turned into a verifiable food fight, much like the Great Hummus War between Israel and Lebanon, ongoing over the last few few years.
Two years ago, 300 Lebanese chefs fried 5 tons of falafel balls. Coincidently, only two weeks later in NYC, an Israeli chef managed to fry a 24 lb. falafel ball. Not appetizing.
So who’s right? Who really owns the falafel?
Falafel most likely originated in Egypt (though others claim it comes from India), where it is called ta’amiya and is made from fava beans.
Jews who lived in Egypt and Syria where exposed to falafel for centuries. Does that give them the right to use it then in their new country?
If a dish becomes popular to the point where you can find it everywhere and it is eaten by everyone in the country, rich and poor, young and old, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, and many see it as their national dish, does it really matter where it came from?
Falafel is so synonymous with Israeli food that the Israeli Ministry of Information and Diaspora Affairs has even asked Israelis to explain to people abroad that Israel has plenty more to offer, and that Israelis do not eat falafel and hummus three times a day!
Since food always traveled with immigrants, and local cuisines were adapted in new places, this discussion seems almost beside the point. I don’t see the Germans accusing Americans of stealing their hamburgers.
If everything was peaceful in our region this probably wouldn’t be an issue worth arguing about. Maybe it would be better to concentrate on the real problems? But then again, food fights might be a better choice.
Falafel was made popular in Israel by Yemeni Jews in the 1950s. They brought with them the chickpea version of the dish from Yemen and introduced the concept of serving falafel balls in pita bread.
And the way the Israeli falafel is served is, in my opinion, the main reason why Israeli falafel is truly, well, Israeli.
The Israeli falafel is served in a pita bread and may include Israeli salad (oops, I meant Arab salad), hummus (did I mention the hummus war?), German sauerkraut, Iraqi fried eggplant and pickled mango sauce, Yemeni hot sauce and French fries (to name just a few of the additions). This combination cannot be any more Israeli.
Israeli or not, falafel in a pita bread with hummus and tahini dip, and with a chopped vegetable salad is a well balanced meal that will work well for vegans, vegetarians and anyone else coming for dinner. It’s cheap and easy to make, so there’s no reason not to prepare it often.
To make it even easier, you can double the recipe and freeze half of the mixture (before adding the flour and baking soda) then thaw it to fry fresh falafel when you’re ready. Chop some tomatoes and Israeli cucumbers (unless if you prefer to call them Persian cucumbers) for a simple salad. Make an easy tahini dip by mixing 1/2 cup tahini with 1/2 cup water and 1/3 cup lemon juice and some salt. Open a can of Israeli pickled cucumbers and serve it all in pita bread filled with the hot falafel balls.
Way better than a 24 lb. falafel ball.
Vered Guttman is a caterer and a food writer based in Washington DC. Growing up in Israel she took her first lessons in Jewish cooking sitting at the tables of her two grandmothers, one from Poland, the other from Iraq. In Modern Manna, Vered will share a mix of new Israeli trends and old Jewish traditions, sprinkled with a distinct Sephardic flavor. Follow Vered on Twitter @veredguttman